Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Life, Death and Beyond

Last week I wrote a column on the near-death experience of a colleague, the Rev. Daniel D. Rhodes. It was written to help those of us who wonder what it is like to die. We wonder what lies beyond that bend in the river of life, around which we cannot see, but which, on our best days of faith, we believe that life goes on. While we cannot answer that question, the very nature of our existence makes it imperative for us to think about it.

I have always hoped that some day as I stood at the bedside of someone who was dying that I might see around the corner into that other dimension, but I never have. I know no more about that other dimension today than I did when I entered the Christian Ministry 62 years ago.

When I was a very young student pastor of a rural circuit, I had a minister come preach a revival in one of my churches. He had a flip chart of heaven and hell, showing the various levels of each. He explained to my congregation exactly what would happen when they died. I was intrigued by this man who knew so much about that age-old question of life after death. I realized what a great help it would be for my ministry if I could explain the mystery of life after death to my future parishioners. I could see myself drawing huge crowds of people who would come to hear me explain that mystery. I asked this minister for a copy of his charts, but he refused my request.

As he drove away at the end of the week, I felt I had missed my chance to become an authority on those two most important questions, death and life after death. Some years later I learned that what he was teaching was mostly from the writings of that 13th century Italian poet, Alighieri Dante, with a sprinkling of passages from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

The preacher and his charts disappeared over the years. I do not know what happened to him and his charts. Every time I hear someone speculating on the subject of what happens when we die, I cannot help but remember this preacher and his charts of heaven and hell. Upon reflection, I am glad he did not give me copies of his material. It would have side-tracked my theological understanding of this important question, and would have led me to mislead people during the early years of my ministry. It is much better to continue to struggle with an unanswered question than to suffer the illusion that the wrong answer is the final word on so important a matter.

Over the past 30 or 40 years there have been a plethora of articles and books by people who have had near-death experiences in which they have crossed the line into the other dimension and then returned to this world. There are some, such as Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who have made a scientific study of this phenomenon. These are interesting studies and stories. I commend them to you, but with this caveat, do not read them as the only or final word. They are diverse enough that we should not try to establish them as the final authority on the subject. I find comfort in some of them. Perhaps you will also.

Dr. M. Scott Peck, of "The Road Less Traveled" fame, wrote a novel in 1996 on the after-life. It is titled "In Heaven as on Earth". The protagonist is obviously Dr. Peck, himself. In this novel he speculates in an engaging manner on what he thinks life will be like after death. This novel should be read as we read all other speculative writings about the deep mysteries of life and death. One should not take the details literally. The details are not important, but the over-arching concept is what counts, i.e., that around the bend in the river of life, life goes on in some manner. The death of the body does not destroy the essence of who we are. When we die we leave all we own, and take with us all that we are. The main thrust of the book is a celebration of the triumph of the mind and spirit. Just remember that such material is fiction. It may be good, spiritually helpful fiction, but still fiction.

Of course, you should not forget that the Bible is a good resource on the subject! While it does not give definitive answers to all our questions, it does call us to faith in Jesus and ultimate trust in God.

There is a piece on the subject by Canon Henry S. Holland of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England, that is sometimes read at funerals. It is Canon Holland's thoughts about what he might say to the living after his death. This is also speculation, but you may find it helpful. Here it is.

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, prayer for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without the ghost of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. There is absolutely unbroken continuity. What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you--for an interval--somewhere near just around the corner.

All is well.